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A living will is a legal document which lets your medical provider know what your wishes are regarding life prolonging medical treatments in case you are unable to speak for yourself. You would indicate what treatments you do or do not wish have performed on you if you are in a vegetative state or are suffering from a terminal illness.

The document is effectively a document which is an “advance directive,” a directive made when the maker is in a sound physical and mental condition and is able to make a decision, instructing medical caregivers not to resuscitate him or her when there is no chance of being resuscitated after an accident, operation or terminal illness. When the time comes to make the decision the maker may not be in a position to make a sound judgment. The “advance directive” therefore will be acted upon by the care givers.

The advantages of living wills is that these directives respect the patient’s human rights, and in particular their right to reject medical treatment; it further encourages full discussion about end of life decisions. It also means that the medical staff and care givers are aware of the patient’s wishes, and knowing what the patient wants means that doctors are more likely to give appropriate treatment. It will also assist medical professionals in taking difficult decisions and avoid the situation where the patient’s family and friends don’t have to take the difficult decisions.

The decision to make a living will should be shared and close family and friends must be made aware of the living will. This document must not be kept with the Last Will and Testament. That document is only used some time after the death of the testator, but the “advance directive” must be readily and easily accessible.

The Living Will tells the doctor and family that the patient does not consent to being kept artificially. It speaks for the patient at a time when the patient may be unable to communicate.

South African law accepts the validity of the living will, as do most religions. Patients may be kept alive in as comfortable a state as possible, but all of the main religions – and our law – do not accept euthanasia.

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